This film will make you stop and take notice of the value of backup vocals.
Backup singers? I’ve never really thought about them. Unless you count Robert Palmer’s pseudo band in his “Addicted to Love” video that used to bug the hell out of me. Or the classic episode of Designing Women where the ladies dress up like Diana Ross and the Supremes. Suzanne floats across the stage in black face, despite Julia’s explicit instructions not to. But other than that, not so much.
So when a co-worker proposed Twenty Feet from Stardom as a possible source for guest stars for our holiday concert, I decided to check it out. Especially when she mentioned that the film had garnered quite a buzz for winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary earlier this year. I’m a sucker for a good music doc, as exemplified in my review of Young@Heart.
I was drawn into this world quickly and easily. Take the opening credits: “Walk on the Wild Side” plays while album covers roll along, the faces and bodies of the lead singers replaced with colorful circles and cutouts. The names of the documentary’s featured performers appear on solo album covers (a bit of foreshadowing). Meanwhile, the doot da doots of the song grow louder, until they overpower the music.
And that’s what director Morgan Neville does: he brings the background to the forefront. He forces the audience to hear what might seem like extraneous but is actually essential. He also gathers an impressive cast of big names—Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler—to talk about some not-as-big names—Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, The Waters Family.
Even if you haven’t heard of them, you have certainly heard them. Darlene Love’s group, The Blossoms, sang on the “The Shoop Shoop Song” and “Monster Mash,” among others. They backed up Frank Sinatra, Buck Owens, and James Brown, changing their sound as needed. While cookie-cutter (read white) backup singers were committed to what they saw on paper, ones like Darlene and The Blossoms ‘brought guts’ and glory to the songs they sang.
The other singers are no less interesting. Merry Clayton willed herself to become a Raelette for Mr. Charles and later belted out backing vocals to the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in the middle of the night with curlers in her hair. Tata Vega got Stevie Wonder’s attention by playing the piano as he was walking away, though she admits she might have overdosed if she ever really made it. My favorite, though, is Lisa Fischer, whose voice seems to know no limits. Despite the success of her solo album, something so many of these singers long for, she isn’t in it for the fame. She sees music as an opportunity to share and support.
After finishing the film, I felt sympathy for the women who never became stars themselves. Yet thinking on it further, I wondered if their loss was our gain. As the film points out, there aren’t as many opportunities for backup singers in the music industry these days, and the songs suffer for it just as much as the people out of work. No (or hollow) backing vocals can often result in a lack of nuance, a hole that could have been filled with passion.
So the next time you listen to a song and notice the subtle harmonic accompaniment, give a moment to think of the backup singers and their often unheralded efforts. I know I will.